Glenn Close, co-narrator and mistress of ceremonies for A Closer Walk, tells us that AIDS is especially hard on “the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the weakest in society.” Given that we are looking at pictures of patients in Haiti, India, and Uganda who can’t afford to feed themselves, much less pay for the pharmaceuticals necessary to save them from retina-eating cytomegaloviruses or organ-rotting Kaposi’s sarcoma, we don’t need a lot of convincing. But everything is harder on the poor and dispossessed. And if there is a larger lesson in the documentaries vying urgently for our attention at the end of summer, before we gurgle into the new fall TV season to be entertained to death, it is that those very agencies in, say, New Delhi, Johannesburg, and Washington, D.C., charged with protecting the weakest in their societies have failed miserably at their job—and that government, from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the criminal-justice system, the intelligence apparatus, and the White House, is full of incompetent clowns.
Although never before nationally telecast, A Closer Walk has been around for a couple of years at film festivals, at colleges and on public television abroad. There have been better aids documentaries, from HBO’s Common Threads to Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, but none more heartfelt. Writer-producer-director Robert Bilheimer spent time on four continents, interviewing scientists and caretakers, talking to Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama, identifying such governments in denial as India and South Africa, marshaling the dread statistics used to signal every change of scene—25 million already dead in Africa; 2,000 aids babies born each day; a new death every eight seconds—and persuading the likes of Eric Clapton and Annie Lennox to contribute their music. Mostly, though, in Odessa, in Kampala, and in Harlem, we meet the victims, with an agitprop emphasis on kids.
On Native Soil, produced and directed by Linda Ellman and narrated by Kevin Costner and Hilary Swank, begins with the families of the victims of 9/11 insisting on an official investigation of the terror attacks while a shame-faced government tries to stonewall. The film then dips in and out of the subsequent testimony (bring in the clowns: Condoleezza Rice, Norman Mineta, George Tenet), while underlining still-unanswered questions (about who never read the “Phoenix” memo, whatever possessed the Port Authority to lock the doors to the roofs of the Twin Towers, why fighter jets were so late to scramble, how the hijackers ever got into this country in the first place) and mixing in the personal stories of the lost, the lucky, and the bereft. You will emerge from these two hours sputtering at the FAA. You will also realize how tactful, if not squeamish, recent TV has been in avoiding replaying the planes’ exploding into the towers. On Native Soil shows the whole horror all over again, and so the mind falls down again a hundred stories.
Not even the FAA, however, can compete with FEMA in grand-operatic bungling. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, as we might expect from Spike Lee’s deciding to take on Katrina and New Orleans, is the class act of this summer’s documentaries, and the whole year, too—something between a nineteenth-century novel and anthropology with a sword, a combination of Balzac and Fats Domino. It was as if a war had been declared on the lower classes and the darker skins. If the poor of the Lower Ninth Ward hadn’t the means to evacuate as Hurricane Katrina came down, they certainly didn’t deserve rescue by helicopters from their rooftops, nor busing to safety from squalid transit camps in the Superdome or on the sunbaked interstates, not even food, drinking water, or a rowboat, unless Sean Penn happened to be in their neighborhood. Bulldozers seemed quicker to arrive than buses, much less any of those FEMA trailers for the homeless—bulldozers because, in the devastation of an ecosystem of Creole culture, easy-money opportunists dreamed immediately of sugar-plum industrial parks.
The Army Corps of Engineers let everybody in New Orleans down, FEMA put its boot on their throats, and the mayor and the governor were too busy blaming each other between photo ops to do anything helpful for the dispossessed. The insurance companies confabulated brand-new cabalistic reasons to deny water-damage claims, and the president of the United States looked down like a blue moon from his Air Force One empyrean—Humpty Dumptys, Howdy Doodys, Alfred E. Neumans, Stepford Statesmen, Bozos and Bonzos. Only the Coast Guard and a couple of newspaper reporters and a handful of citizen volunteers behaved with anything resembling honor. And all of these people talk to Spike Lee’s cameras, including the scientists who had warned the world what would very likely happen in a Category 5 hurricane. To this masterful crosscutting mix of past and present, of authority and anguish, of ass-covering officialdom and angry dispossession, of sick-city misery and soul-stirring music, add an obscene recurrence of dead bodies left to rot on city streets.